My Opening Evolution: Playing Against 1.d4

I wrote last week about my journey finding a defence to 1.e4. It started with just knowing opening principles, turning into the Sicilian Dragon … then literally every other possible defence. I couldn’t find an opening I liked, as everyone seemed to have some flaw, something that made it unplayable from my perspective.

That said, all of this was minor compared to my problem against 1.d4, or 1.c4 for that matter. At first glance it might not seem bad at all, as there are relatively fewer systems against the closed openings. You can accept or decline the Queen’s Gambit, or you can play a Nimzo structure or a King’s Indian structure. Not many choices, especially compared to 1.e4, where virtually anything goes.

The problem was, well, I was terrible at all of these.

The General Problem

My main problem, and I’m sure this is true for the vast majority of people new to chess, was that I could only play open positions. If the center was open and all the pieces could move, I was pretty decent for a 1300 player. If the position became more blocked, though, then I simply didn’t know what to do. I had no experience in these structures, and I didn’t really study chess at the time. If you got me in a blocked position, even with an extra piece or two, I’d just flail about randomly. I had no clue.

This is a small problem, as 1.d4 is characterized by having more closed positions. Heck, it’s even called the closed games. I needed to learn how to play such positions, even in general, before approaching 1.d4 in particular. However, because most beginners are in this boat, very few play 1.d4, meaning very few get any experience in such closed systems, meaning that we all remain stagnant in our chess development.

Seriously, it’s a problem. Years later, I played 1.d4 as White for a bit, and I earned many easy victories even against intermediate players simply because they didn’t have experience in these closed structures.

The Specific Problem

Now, none of the above would be much of a problem if not for one opening in particular, the Queen’s Gambit. I knew that Black could not hold onto the pawn, so it was pointless to take it. Defending it, though, seemed even worse. Take for instance the following standard QGD position, taken from Chess for Dummies. That’s when I first saw it.

Tell me, would you not rather be White here? That was my overwhelming thought. White has done everything right: his Knights are on the best squares, his Bishops are on the best available squares, and he can easily move his Queen and put his Rooks anywhere he wants. He can play in the center or the Queenside, and if he really wanted to he could try for a Kingside attack as well. White can do anything.

Black, by contrast, looks terrible. He has one good piece, the Knight on f6. Everything else is passive. What can Black do? Seriously, does Black even have an active plan? This is a classic case of an ‘equal’ position among really good players, but among non-masters Black has almost nothing. Heck, a decade later and I’m over 2000 rating online, and I still don’t like Black’s position. Yes, I know it’s grandmaster approved, but that doesn’t mean I’m any good at it.

This, then, was the main problem. I couldn’t accept the Queen’s Gambit and I couldn’t decline it. Both options looked bad. I needed to find something, then, that wasn’t 1…d5.

Trying Every Indian

The main alternative to 1…d5 would be the Indian defences, 1…Nf6. Black now has lots of options to choose from: the Nimzo- and Bogo-Indian, the King’s and Queen’s Indian, the Grunfeld, the Benoni, even just regular ‘Old Indian’ moves. Options are great, but really, most of these are similar, and worse, all are hypermodern.

As I’ve grown as a chess player, I’ve realized something: you can’t fully understand the importance of hypermodern theory until you understand the classical theory. That is, the hypermoderns were reacting to the classicists, saying that they were wrong or mistaken about chess. If you don’t even know what the classicists said, you won’t understand what the hypermodern answers even mean.

That was my problem. I didn’t understand anything. I just memorized the first four moves of the Nimzo-Indian and said cool, I’ve learned a new opening. This didn’t work very well, as you can imagine. I lost games and I didn’t even know why, and so I switched from opening to opening, all with worse results than the next.

The King’s Indian is perhaps the worst example. People kept saying that it was an aggressive opening, perhaps the most aggressive Black reply to 1.d4. Cool, I like playing aggressively… except I had no idea what to do after the first four moves. I knew to generally play f5 at some point, but that’s it. I lost again and again and again. My win-rate hovered around 30%. Good job, me.

I eventually settled on the Grunfeld defence, because the active piece play made more sense to me. The positions tended to be less closed. You might think, doesn’t the Grunfeld require a lot of theory? Yes and no. At the highest levels, yes, it does. At my level, about 1600 at the time, White didn’t know the main lines any more than I did, and so things went relatively smoothly, compared to the KID at least.

Loving the Dutch, Not Loving Theory

At some point, I also tried the Dutch defence, and here I found my answer … for a little while. I got good positions, I won lots of games, and it was easy. My attacks seemed to play themselves. I’ve written about this in detail, complete with example games, here.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. The Dutch worked wonders against weaker opponents, but stronger players repulsed my attack and won easily afterwards. With the Dutch, I either won easily or lost horrible, nothing else. As nice as winning easily is, losing horrible wasn’t worth it. With a sigh, I eventually went back to my theory-less Grunfeld.

Why didn’t I just learn theory? Well, for one, the Grunfeld has books and books and books of theory. It’s ridiculous. I had no interest in that, especially when most White players get out of book themselves before move eight. Why use all that time studying theory when I will almost never get a chance to use it?

In a related sense, my opponents tended to play 1.e4 far, far more often than 1.d4. In my personal database, I have over 700 games as Black, and just over 200 of them started with 1.d4. That’s less than 1 in 3 games. Learning theory here thus really didn’t make sense: most people didn’t play it, and when they did they avoided theory themselves.

Of course, this is all besides the point. Memorizing theory is all fine and good, but if I don’t understand how to play blocked positions, it still won’t do me any good.

Finding Smirnov

I wrote in my post on 1.e4 that GM Igor Smirnov’s opening course finally got me on the right track. Here it’s similar but different: studying his Planning course helped push me over the edge. ‘Your Winning Plan’ featured a section on how to play blocked positions and semi-blocked positions, and it really opened my eyes.

In a nutshell, you can’t treat a blocked or closed position like an open position. Seems obvious, but maybe it isn’t. That’s what I tried to do. I tried to play open positions and use pieces with a blocked centre, and that’s why I failed. The rules for closed positions are different, and it doesn’t just mean manoeuvring your pieces around aimlessly.

I was 1800 at the time, and had been for years. After studying that course, I finally understood how to play closed systems. Well, maybe not on a grandmaster level, and they are still perhaps my weakest link, but infinitely better than I did before.

Bringing It All Together

Now that I knew how to play closed systems properly, I had no fear in going into the more closed openings. I stopped playing the Grunfeld, as my results were never that great, and I moved onto the two main options presented in Smirnov’s Opening Lab course, the Nimzo and Bogo Indian.

These openings are positionally sound and highly strategic. They suit my budding positional style, and as a bonus, they imbalance the game, allowing you to outplay a weaker opponent. My results have been mixed so far, with some greats games and some much less great games, but I no longer need to worry about my opening repertoire. As a bonus, because these openings were presented in Smirnov’s course, I already have virtually all the theory I need to play them, which is nice.

I still don’t face 1.d4 very often, but when I do, I’m ready to face it. It’s been a long journey, but I figured out how to handle the closed openings.

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